BALTIMORE — Win the games you’re supposed to and hold your own against the toughest competition.
That adage holds up across sports and was mentioned quite a bit as the Orioles started 21-10 with an early schedule that included a healthy chunk of games against the AL’s worst teams. The early test — and remember it’s still so early — would come with a three-game road set against NL-leading Atlanta followed by a home series with the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s best team through the first six weeks of the season.
But after Baltimore dropped two of three to the Braves — one on a late pinch-hit home run and the finale in 12 innings — and lost its first series opener of the season against the Rays on Monday night, just a few doubters started coming out of the woodwork. Losing three in a row — the first time Brandon Hyde’s club had done that all season — to the top two teams in baseball was surely a sign of being exposed against stiffer competition and not being ready for prime time, right?
Instead, the Orioles took the final two against the 29-9 Rays, handing them only their third series loss and back-to-back defeats for just the third time this year. Going 3-3 against the Braves and the Rays would appear to qualify as holding your own with Baltimore sporting the third-best record in the majors at 24-13 entering Thursday.
It’s quite the change from where the Orioles found themselves last May and June when star catcher Adley Rutschman arrived in the majors and fortunes began to shift.
“We’ve grown a lot the last couple years. We’ve learned how to win these tight games, minimize some of the damage, and just continue to fight,” said left fielder Austin Hays, who drove in the winning run in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory. “Now, we’re coming out on the other side of these games that we were losing a lot of the close ones last year. We’ve kind of turned that page. That’s what good teams do.
“Whether you’re hitting or you’re picking up the pitching staff or the pitching staff is picking up the hitting when guys aren’t doing well, we seem to be doing that right now and just finding a way to win however.”
After a poor April, starter Dean Kremer led the pitching staff over this six-game stretch, tossing six strong innings to win Friday’s opener in Atlanta and throwing six scoreless frames to stifle the Rays’ potent bats on Wednesday. His recent rebound reminds of the need to let a baseball season breathe — good or bad — as many like to point to Memorial Day as a useful checkpoint.
Of course, Kremer wasn’t alone in the pitching department as the other members of the starting rotation gave the Orioles a good chance over this stretch and the bullpen continued to carry a heavy burden. Even with closer Felix Bautista out of sorts recently, Baltimore ranks fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA and third in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.
With all but three Orioles games decided by four runs or fewer this season and their starting pitching ranking 24th in innings, there’s been no shortage of medium- and high-leverage work for Baltimore relievers, making the remarkable emergence of right-hander Yennier Cano a godsend. With Bautista unavailable, Cano recorded his third save with a eight-pitch ninth inning on Wednesday and still hasn’t been scored upon in 18 2/3 innings.
“Every night, they’re legit,” said Kremer about the bullpen. “There’s not one guy that you can be like, ‘Oh, maybe.’ But no, every guy that we throw out of the bullpen is top [quality].”
The Orioles needed their pitching to step up with the offense — above average overall in 2023 — scuffling lately with runners in scoring position and scoring just 12 runs over the last five contests, which will happen when facing top-shelf pitching staffs. That’s the nature of baseball as the best teams will have different phases of the game pick them up over the course of six months — and hopefully into a seventh.
Of course, there’s a very long way to go, and no one should be printing playoff tickets based off any stretch in early May. But the Orioles passed their early-season test in encouraging fashion and remain in a great spot with nearly a quarter of the year in the books.
“To show up to the park knowing you’re going to have a chance to win every game that you play is a phenomenal feeling after some of the big losses — just being out of it in the third, fourth inning — a couple years ago,” said Hays, who’s been with the organization since 2016. “It’s come a long way really fast. That’s all you can ask for as a competitor — to show up and have a chance to win every game night in and night out.”
Even against baseball’s top teams.